Last week I spent watching the Olympics and it was great to have tickets to see the Rowing and Equestrian Events live. The pundits tell us how much time athletes spend preparing each day for just this moment, and I have been reflecting on how different it is for leaders and managers. How much time do we give to prepare for success? So I thought it might be worth looking at practical techniques used by elite athletes, that we can all apply and achieve more successful leadership.
1. Visualise success
I once had the pleasure to hear Sir Matthew Pinsent CBE speak; he’s a four times Olympic Gold Medallist rower. I asked him how he did it. To get out on the River Thames on a cold wet winter morning takes real motivation. He told me that he visualised, in detail, crossing the finishing line ahead of everyone, and standing up on the podium, feeling the sun on his face and hearing the National Anthem.
- This is something we can all do. What does success look like for you? Just creating a detailed image of what success means makes it clear what you’re aiming for – connecting you with why you do what you do.
- Your visualisation might be on a smaller scale – perhaps the task in hand. You might hear what people will be saying when you are successful. Some of my coaching clients like to visualise their ‘successful office’ or describe tactile elements: the smell and feel of a leather chair, for example. Our senses are connected to our emotions, so we can start feeling that success when we start visualising it.
I’m so impressed by the high level of focus that athletes develop. Some describe this as being in the zone, going inside and anchoring to their essence. In our busy lives, with so many distractions, we lose the ability to focus on one thing at a time. This hasn’t been helped by a misunderstanding of women’s apparent knack of ‘multi-tasking’. What actually happens is still one thing at a time – it’s the ability to switch quickly back and forth between one thing and another that makes it look like simultaneous – and it requires focus.
- The simplest technique for focusing is to take one thing and shift your attention to it for a sustained amount of time. Use your eyes, and really look; use your ears and listen.
- As your mind interrupts, or external events try to grab your attention, keep returning your focus to the thing you want to focus upon.
3. Own the stadium
Imagine walking into a stadium of 70,000 people and, when your name is announced, a huge roar greets you from the crowd. Athletes do exactly that, yet retain their composure – I watched one break the world record for 100m hurdles in the Heptathlon Event just a few minutes after being introduced in this way. You can develop your presence and own the space you’re stepping into, to improve your influence. With presence, people really pay attention when you walk into the room and when you speak your ideas and arguments have a better chance of being listened to and acted upon.
- This is an extension of focus. When we project our real selves it’s easier for others to align with us; they’re not receiving confusing signals; they know who you are.
- The easiest way to build essence is to identify a metaphor or image that conjures up, for you, what you’re about. The image helps you remember your essence, so that when you walk into that meeting, presentation, or packed stadium, you’re totally present to who you are.
Seeing and feeling success is about being clear where we’re going; being focused and really present with ourselves is about being aligned and connected to others. We train our clients in these skills as these tools are fundamental to better leadership. Events like the Games help remind us that we can all prepare for more successful leadership and, as leaders and managers, we can all develop skills to help us succeed.